Historic Structures

Hippodrome Theatre, Baltimore Maryland

Date added: June 13, 2022 Categories: Maryland Theater

Opened in 1914, The Hippodrome Theater was the premiere vaudeville theater of Baltimore, was one of its first motion picture theaters, and is one of an increasingly small number of remaining buildings in the western area of downtown Baltimore which reflect the neighborhood's previous vitality as a commercial and entertainment center.

The west side of Baltimore thrived as a vibrant entertainment, retail, and financial district from the late nineteenth century through the 1950s. At the time of the Hippodrome's opening in 1914, the west side district was well established as a bustling entertainment center. A bird's eye view of the area shortly before 1912 indicates the density of pedestrian, electric streetcar, horse and buggy, and automobile traffic already present at the Hippodrome Theater site prior to the theater's construction. The neighborhood was densely populated with the garment trade, banks, department stores, hotels, and all manner of small shops to serve the urban population.

Earlier theaters such as Ford's Theater (1871), the Academy of Music (1875), and the Mayfair (1890) had already established the west side district as the center for live entertainment in Baltimore. At the turn of the century, theater construction quickened with the opening of Blaney's (1901), the Maryland (1903), and the Wizard (1904). In the period just before the construction of the Hippodrome, more new theaters had bloomed on the west side, including the Alcazar (1907), the Howard (1908), the Blue Mouse (1909), the Dixie (1909), the Lexington (1909) and the New (1910).

Marion Pierce and Phillip Scheck, local promoters and purveyors of motion picture equipment and supplies from their shop at 223 North Calvert Street, formed the Hippodrome Theater Company and obtained the future site of tile Hippodrome Theater by purchasing part of the former Eutaw House site in 1913. They commissioned Thomas Lamb to plan the most ambitious theater ever attempted in Baltimore. An advertisement from the theater's opening touts the Hippodrome Theater as "the largest theater South of Philadelphia."

Far from cornering the market for theater patrons upon its construction, the Hippodrome Theater had to compete with all of the theaters mentioned above in addition to a raft of new competitors, including Keith's (1915), also designed by Thomas Lamb, and the Strand (1916). By 1920, the Hippodrome, the New, and Keith's were attracting over 30,000 customers per week to three daily performances. Initially operated by the Loew's organization, admission to the Hippodrome Theater was 10 cents in the afternoon and 25 cents in the evening. A typical program from 1915 included an orchestra performance followed by trapeze performers, "Thompson's Elephants," Barlow's Dog's and Ponies," "Webb's Seals," and "Arizona Days" featuring "America's greatest cowgirl rider, Adel Von Ohl."

By the 1920s, new west side theaters were being primarily designed for the motion pictures, including the Century (1921) and the Stanley (1927).

In 1917, the Loews organization began to lease the Hippodrome Theater and present "Supreme Vaudeville" and some films. By 1924, the Hippodrome Theater had become the second Keith vaudeville house in Baltimore, after the Maryland Theater. Isadore Rappaport, a Philadelphia theater operator newly arrived in Baltimore, leased the theater in 1921, and after renovating and installing a new marquee, it reopened with live shows and films. In 1941, Rappaport again remodeled, and added big bands to the program. A fire in 1951 closed the theater for several months, and the last stage show was presented in 1959. The theater was leased to Trans-Lux in 1962 and was renovated again in 1963 for the opening of "Cleopatra." In 1989, the doors were closed for the last time.

The Hippodrome Theater has occupied an important place in Baltimore's cultural life for several generations, and was certainly one of Baltimore's most elegant theaters in its heyday. The list of noted performers who graced the Hippodrome Theater stage is too long to recount, beginning with the stars of Vaudeville and later hosting such entertainment figures as George Jessel, Ethel Barrymore, Cab Calloway, Sophie Tucker, Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, and many more. The Hippodrome Theater serves as an important cultural record of the crucial evolution from live vaudevillian performance to full length feature films that transformed popular entertainment in American society in the early 20th century.

The Hippodrome Theater is a transitional piece in the career of its designer, Thomas Lamb, a nationally renowned master of theater architecture. Born in Scotland and without formal architectural training, Lamb began practicing architecture in New York City in 1892 after an apprenticeship as a building inspector, which involved him in the practical considerations of the theater construction. By the time he began working on the Hippodrome, Lamb had established a reputation as one of the nation's leading theater architects with such significant works in New York City as Morris' American (Roof) Theater (1909), Fox's City Theater (1910), The Minsky Theater (1912), Fox's Audubon (1912), and The Royal (1913), as well as numerous theaters in other cities including the Cort Theater, Montreal, and the Winter Garden, Toronto, both designed in 1913. Thomas Lamb's later work includes the Capitol and Zeigfield Theaters in New York, the Fox Theater in Philadelphia, and the Ohio Theater in Columbus. The Hippodrome Theater is one of Lamb's earliest known theaters as well as one of the last opulent designs from his early period. His later work evolved toward a simpler, more "Adamesque" style. Work abroad included theaters in England, Australia, North Africa, India, and Egypt.

The exterior design of the Hippodrome Theater reflects the reality of the fierce competition which existed among downtown theaters for customers. Through a richly textured and sculptural facade design of brick and terra cotta, Lamb created a composition which was both inviting and exuberant. The exterior suggests the vitality waiting within, and establishes a strong presence at an otherwise difficult mid-block location. The interior more than lives up the promise of the facade by delivering a richly decorated and dynamic interior space, focused on the elaborate proscenium arch and stage.

The Hippodrome Theater has undergone numerous primarily cosmetic renovations during this century, but nevertheless retains sufficient integrity of design, materials, location, feeling, and association to represent the tradition of Vaudeville theater and the transition to modern cinema in American culture. The Hippodrome Theater also stands as a prominent Baltimore landmark, a place where at least three generations of Baltimoreans have come for entertainment. Significantly, of the more than thirty major theaters which once thrived on Baltimore's west side, only three remain, including the Hippodrome, the Town on Fayette Street, and the Mayfair on Howard Street. The Hippodrome Theater is the largest, the most ornate, and the most intact of these three.

The most recent renovation combined three contiguous existing buildings and a new structure: the Western National Bank Building (1887), the Eutaw Savings Bank Building (1888) and the Hippodrome into a major performing arts complex, designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. The Maryland Stadium Authority led the renovation. Clear Channel Entertainment (now Live Nation) became the theatre operator after project completion. In 2008, Live Nation sold most of its theatrical assets, including the Hippodrome, to Key Brand Entertainment.